The P Word

To P, or not to P… that is the question. The P word, that is.

When it comes to my own novels, I very much beat about the bush (pun intended) when it comes (there’s another) to the sex scenes, but one person who isn’t afraid to give it to her readers (I’ll stop now) is my wonderful friend/ author Kierney Scott.

Here’s what Kierney had to say about how you should refer to vajayjays in books…

I am going to just come right out and say it: I don’t like the word pussy. There, I said it, or wrote it actually, but my point remains the same. The word makes me cringe. Most people have words they don’t particularly like. Word on the street is that “moist” is like nails on a black board for some people. Me? Not so much. I think it sums things up quite nicely…and it reminds me of cake…mmm cake…

The vast majority of women I know hate the word “cunt”. Again, not bothered, not even a little. I don’t use it a lot, but if someone says it in front of me I am not going to pull a face and tut loudly. I might have a wee look round to make sure Baby Girl is not in earshot because I am fairly certain other parents would be a bit annoyed if my seven year old teaches their child that lexical jewel.

But back to pussy, and my profound dislike for the word. For anyone else, this would be a non-issue: don’t like a word, don’t use it. But here is where things get tricky; I write about sex, well relationships actually, but sex is a big (or small as the case may be ) part of it. Friends, vaginas are pretty darn important for sex, not all sex, but the kind of sex I write about. I don’t use euphemisms because I don’t particularly enjoy them. I want to know exactly who is putting what where and how everybody is feeling about it.

In theory I could use the word vagina. In real life that is my go to word. In my house, there was never any talk of flowers or fifis or any of the other names people use for female anatomy. We call it a vagina, because…well that it what it is called and it is vital that children know the names of all their body parts. My daughter did however think penises were called bonuses, and we did not correct her immediately because it was kind of adorable.

But vaginas? They are always vaginas.

So when I sat down to write my first romance novel, there was no question; I was going write about penises and vaginas. But then I started writing and I soon discovered they don’t work (the words not the body parts). They are just too clinical. I was not writing a textbook, I was writing a romance novel, and clinical was not something I was striving for.

At first I came up with the clever solution (note to non British readers, that was sarcasm) of not using ANY word to describe a vagina. I had heroes sliding into heroines, maybe into her wetness if I was feeling fancy, but for the most part they were just sliding like a baseball player into home base. Eventually I realized this was stupid for many reasons, not least of which was the ambiguity. Where exactly was this guy sliding? Again another stroke of pure genius (again sarcasm): I would mention the heroine’s cervix. This works. I still use it, but only when the sex is sore, because having your cervix battered by a randy man is going to be a bit nippy.

So what do I call it, these magical lady bits? I would quite happily use the much maligned “cunt” word, but as I said before women really seem to hate it and I want people to enjoy my books. It would be a shame if one little word ruined a reader’s experience. So I had a good long think. Yes I pondered vaginas for quite a while (it is job related so it is totally not weird) and I finally realized I don’t have to like the word pussy.

I cannot stress how momentous this was for me. It was right up there with the “aha” moment Newton had with the apple. Friends, we are talking epic here so let me say it again: it doesn’t matter what I think about the word. Why? Because I am not my characters. My preferences and prejudices aren’t those of my characters. I don’t know why it took me so long to see it in regards to pussy. I have always written characters that are very different than me. I am a teetotal vegetarian, but I have my characters eating steak and drinking whisky. My characters routinely make decisions I would not make and pray to deities I don’t believe in. It stands to reason they would use words I don’t.

So I did it. I cringed a little as I typed the double “s” and I had to close my eyes as my index finger struck the “y” but I did it. So yes, I am now a member of the pussy posse. It happened in Book 3 of the Firing Line Trilogy (Crossing the Line). If memory serves the aforementioned body part was clenching in anticipation…as they do…

So now, dear readers, I must ask your advice. What word(s) would you use for female anatomy if you were writing a romance novel. I would really love to know.

Kierney’s latest book, Blurring the Line, is out now.

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11 thoughts on “The P Word

  1. Argh you echoed all my worries when I first started writing. I do use cunt in my Regencies, because well it was used willy nilly ( pun intended lol) then. I hate pussy, but use that in my contemps.
    Boy don’t we learn a lot about ourselves when we begin to write.
    P.S. I’ve been told dampness is acceptable!

  2. Great post! I do a bit of the old ‘sliding into nowhere’ when writing too. I really REALLY hate it when writers use the word ‘sex’ as a noun. ‘He touched her sex.’ Bleugh. Something about that is a bit cringe for me- I’ll let it go with the old school novels, but you’re absolutely right, there seems to be no good word!

  3. This is a very interesting article. I admit to knowing nothing about writing romantic fiction, and next-to-nothing about reading it. Therefore maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by what I read. Here come my comments in no particular order, and (just to be clear from the outset) I could be completely wrong in all of them.

    (1) I thought the P-word would be referring to penis but there I go with my androcentric views again.

    (2) I think the majority of terms for women’s genitalia are either anatomical or derogatory. I think vagina obviously fits into the first category, and cunt squarely into the second. For me, pussy belongs in the second category: it seems to be an attempt to objectify that part of a woman by explicitly comparing it with something else which is vaguely furry. It must therefore be difficult to write about it without sounding like a textbook, or resorting to ridiculous euphemisms (ladygarden?), or overblown poetry (innermost caverns of pleasure). Nonetheless, it can be achieved. Tipping the velvet is a Victorian term for (lesbian) cunnilingus: for me (at least) it has connotations of gentleness and tenderness but not the coarseness inherent pussy.

    (3) Going along with this is (I suppose) my notion that for women, sexual pleasure is predominantly about the emotional content, where for men, sex is predominantly about the view, the penetration and the climax. I haven’t read Kierney’s books, but what’s written above suggests that there is much more explicit description than I would have expected. (I am not sure I would want to read about sex being sore for either party, but maybe I am missing something). So, if romantic fiction now involves detailed descriptions of body parts being inserted into other body parts, is that because empowered 21-st Century women are now expecting more full-on, in your face action? Or maybe society has become so blasé about sex that it’s not “sexy” enough unless it’s more like porn?

    (4) I find “moist” unobjectionable, but “dampness” reminds me of the fungus in my bathroom. And (in agreement with almichaelwriter above) I loathe the use of “sex” as a noun to describe female genitalia.

    (4) In answer to your last question (what terms to use to describe it), I can’t easily answer. However, having spent a lot of time studying anatomy, I think that some anatomical terms are OK, having been reasonably uncontaminated by popular misuse. I think it’s hard to write about the clitoris without calling it that, and various schoolboy abbreviations (clitty) are dreadfully cumbersome. I think pubis is OK. I think labia is OK, and probably vulva too.

    (5) I guess the problem is that, if you were to describe a sex scene to me, I would want you to do it in terms which I understand, (gooch? chode? wtf?) and which carry the connotations of being pleasant and arousing without being offensive, childish or ridiculous. And therein lies the problem: for some people, some terms work and some don’t, and therefore the frame of reference is different for every reader. My recommendation is that each writer should use terms they feel comfortable with. I assume they write sexual activity they feel comfortable with, and therefore the language should reflect that. I think to deliberately use language you don’t feel comfortable with will create a tension which could be apparent to the reader.

    1. Reader expectation depends on the genre. Erotic romance is much more explicit than traditional romance. I use sex scenes for character and story development, because the relationship is the heart of the book. I have never seen a porn movie so I can’t compare those to romance novels. My objection of pornography is based on the exploitation of vulnerable people as well as the deleterious effect on the attitudes of viewers. I don’t believe romance or erotica have a negative impact on readers or the larger community, pornography does. For proof of this you can look at studies that analyse the incidents of rape and child abuse in indigenous cultures before and after exposure to pornography.

      1. Thanks for your reply. Sorry I got a bit carried away with the italics in my last post and the formatting isn’t quite right.

        Pornography is (IMO) about two things. It’s about the man’s pleasure, regardless of (and increasingly at the expense of) the woman’s pleasure. And it’s about the exploitation and objectification of women.

        Nonetheless, our society is now saturated with pornography. I think this causes two things. First, it normalises the objectification of women as sexual playthings of men (and I agree this has powerful, far-reaching, and harmful effects). Secondly, I think it shifts our frame of reference, so that we become inured to ever-more explicit material on TV and film. I suppose I was wondering if it’s this second process which affects the content of your work, or whether you were aware of any other external forces (such as a market demand for material which is hotter than it maybe used to be).

        I heard a debate once on Radio 4 about pornography, where they said that the only difference between pornography and erotica is entirely subjective. We use “erotica” to talk about material we approve of, and “pornography” to talk about material we disapprove of, but the line between them may be very different from person to person.

        So I suppose my question is: where do you draw the line? In your writing, how do you decide that some act or other is too risky, too offensive, too eye-watering? Or is there nowhere you won’t go if the plot demands?

  4. Aidan- Another great question! Where do I draw the line? It is entirely driven by the characters and varies from book to book. Twice in a Lifetime was a reunion story and the sex was more sweet than steamy, as least compared to Dirty Little Secrets, where the emphasis in the beginning was more physical. Blurring the Line goes further still. So the short answer is : my characters determine the line.

    Saying that, I only write characters I can identify with. I have to empathise with them and understand their motivation even as they make mistakes and bad choices. I would compare it to real life friendships. We all have friends that make choices we wouldn’t but we love them and support them even as they are being ridiculous because we get where it is coming from. And just like a friend, there are certain things we won’t tolerate. There are deal breakers in life and in fiction, I avoid nasty mean spirited people in both.

    I only write consensual sex. My characters may engage in things I don’t personally enjoy but that is ok because i am not writing about me. As long as they like it, we are all systems go. Your point about erotica versus porn is an interesting one. Certainly porn is a pejorative term, there is no getting away from that, so of course I would prefer the tern erotica. But is goes beyond that, porn is physical, all romance is dependent on the emotional connection of the characters. The heart of the story is the relationship and sex one component of it. The sex in romance serves the development of the characters and story. Do some people find my writing pornographic? Yes. I have reviews that have said as much. I also have reviews that said I did not have enough sex in my books. Peoples opinions and values vary wildly. In the end I can only do what I feel is right for the characters.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful and interesting reply Kierney. What I am hearing is that your writing is not affected by porn in society, but instead is driven by what you (personally) feel is going to work in a book. I suppose you have an idea of who your readership is likely to be, and what they are looking for in a book. As long as you write what they are expecting or hoping to find, then it all works out (and what this means is that some people will think there is too much sex; others not enough). (I like the fact that you consider your characters as if they were friends: flawed but (ultimately) worthy individuals).

    So I guess my next question is this one. I assume most of your readers are female. Do you think that your writing serves the same purpose for women as pornography does for men? In other words, it’s private, erotic material which allows one to experience situations vicariously which are not possible (or at least not easily possible) in real life?

    I guess as a bigger question, I ask: do men read romance fiction? I guess a few of them maybe do. What is it that those men find which draws them in? And do you always describe sex from the woman’s perspective? How much of the man’s pleasure do you include, if any?

  6. Most romance readers are female but not all. I have had a few reviews from men. I once read that romance novels are popular with men with limited access to females, as in incarceration or military service.
    I don’t think romance novels serve the same purpose as porn. Romance is about the emotional experience. In most cases they capture the initial stage of a romantic relationship, with all the hormone rushes and drama. In real life this phase can be very stressful. Does he like me? Am I making a mistake? Moving too fast? In books you get to experience all the positive emotions of falling in love with the guarantee that everything will indeed work out. The hallmark of a romance novels is the happy ending. Characters endure all sorts during the course of a book but there is an understanding that at the end of the book (or series) there will be a happy ending.
    I enjoy reading and writing romance because I get to stretch emotional muscles that never get used.I am blessed with a loving stable family and I would not want it any other way. But is is nice vicariously experience emotions in a safe way. One of the best things about about being a sentient being are the plethora of feelings we are able to experience. In books we get to feel things through the character that we would never want to in real life.

    As for sex scenes, I write from both the male and female point of view. I think it is important to include both sides because it is after all about the connection between two people.

    I think it is time for you to read your first romance novel. Try it, you might like them. There are so many sub genres within romance that you are almost certain to find something you enjoy. I am happy to give recommendations. Just tell me what kind of book you like and i will hook you up 🙂

    1. Thanks Kierney. It’s very interesting that there are some readers who are men, and I wonder why. (It would seem a shame if only prisoners and the military would read them, though I guess in those cases I get why they do).

      I can understand that people would enjoy experiencing that first rush of infatuation all over again. I suppose people read thrillers to be thrilled and ghost stories to be spooked. Why not read romance novels to feel romantic? When you look at it like this, it isn’t the same as porn.

      Do you find it difficult to consider sex from the man’s perspective?

      I would love to read any of your books, but I have a strong preference for reading books on paper!

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